Inside a Brain Scientist’s Mind

An interview with Martin M. Monti

by Ludovica ROSSI PURINI

Martin M. Monti (born May 24, 1978) is a professor at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) in the departments of Psychology and Neurosurgery. A Bocconi University graduate (2002) in Economics and Social Sciences, he specialized in the integration of cognitive psychology and game theory. In 2007 he obtained his PhD from Princeton University in Psychology and Neuroscience, working on the neural basis of reasoning. Between 2007 and 2010 he was a Post-Doctoral Researcher at the Medical Research Council Cognition & Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge, UK, working primarily on disorders of consciousness. His research on vegetative states was named one of the “100 most interesting news of 2010” by Discovery Magazine, and he was recently named “Rising Star” by the American Psychological Association. When not busy studying the brain or talking about science, you are apt to find him sitting at the piano or the controls of a Cessna 172 in the skies of Baja California.

Your course of study up to graduation was carried out in Italy. From your biography not only does your Jewish identity emerge to a great sense, but also your internationality in both a personal and professional way, in large part due to your ancestry. What does it mean to you to be Italian, and how did your Italian education become part of your identity?

Martin MONTI: My Italian identity is embodied in the idea of the Renaissance man, meaning the perfect eclecticism of knowledge. Currently, my research takes place in two very diverse fields, namely the relationship between language and thought on one hand and the definition of states of consciousness on the other. This versatility of interests is connected to the Italian educational system that, at least in the years in which I attended, guaranteed an open approach to knowledge and was essential in making every student capable of processing a choice based on a wealth of knowledge. The system, and certainly the influence of the surrounding environment, put me in a position to identify the problematic aspects in acquired knowledge and to ask questions in a very general way.

Do you consider yourself one of those Italians who “escaped abroad” or was it rather that your education, which was also influenced by Italian culture, was something extra that allowed you to begin a journey elsewhere at this stage of your life, widening your horizons?

MM: Undoubtedly, in a system like the Italian one the transition from one research field to another, as I did from economics to neuroscience, is more difficult and complicated. However, I cannot define myself as a fugitive but rather a person who has had an opportunity abroad after having had other, albeit different, ones in my country of origin. Besides, my fascination for neuroscience was born in Italy while attending a course at Bocconi University, and in our country there are actually quite notable institutions such as Santa Lucia in Rome, Carlo Besta and San Raffaele in Milan.

In recent years, the reality is that we take for granted that Italy’s youth are going abroad to improve their studies, and are beginning to understand the problems of them not returning. The data on youth employment are dramatic and the world of work seems an illusion, especially for high-level professions where we import low-skilled workers and export intelligence that do not return. Have you noticed this problematic aspect in your experience?

MM: I absolutely consider myself a very fortunate person because despite the strong competition that exists (as in all work situations) in the academic world, I have not yet had a problem in finding a place where I could conduct my research; which makes me feel that I could one day return to my home country. However, without any doubt whatsoever, Italy must make it easier for young researchers to become integrated into the system. This may perhaps be considered the biggest difference with the American system in which I work. Here the norm is that the young researcher is treated from the outset as one who in the next decade will bring “probably” the most knowledge and increased awareness in the research community: consequently the problem of competitiveness and obstructionism do not exist, and the relationships are a spirit of partnership and support.

ARTICLE Inside a Brain Scientist's Mind 2

For several years you have dealt with research in the field of residual consciousness in persistent vegetative state patients. In particular, as an expert in this field, you were also called upon to examine and test Ariel Sharon. There have been many scientific advances in recent years in this area — what innovative developments do you think there will be in the near future?

MM: Over the past 5-10 years we have learned a lot (even though we still know very little!). Perhaps what we have truly learned so far is how little we knew of what it means to lose consciousness and, more importantly, how do you figure out whether an individual is or is not conscious. For example, we learned that the tools which we believed capable of discriminating conscious from unconscious patients may actually give erroneous results in many cases. What is lacking in this field, and on what we are concentrating our efforts in my lab, is an understanding of what the neural fingerprint of consciousness is. How is the feeling of being conscious created by the interaction of billions of neurons? What mechanisms are broken when we lose consciousness following severe traumatic brain injury – what happened, for instance, with the F1 champion Michael Schumacher – and what chances exist of “reigniting” consciousness? These are the questions which we are trying to answer at the moment.

Another area where you conduct research is the relationship between mind and language. What form do your studies take and what might the practical application of new knowledge in this area be?

MM: “My research, in general, is in gaining understanding of some of the more profound and characteristic aspects of our human nature; this specific field certainly embodies my interest in the relationship between language and thought. Language is so deeply embedded in our minds, and is unique in the animal kingdom (but is not the “only one”!), which makes it natural to wonder if it actually has to do with all those activities that only humans can do – how to send ships to other planets, build devices to communicate via satellite, and much more. I could then say that this aspect of my research is, at least for the moment, focused on understanding how the human mind works, and the more practical implications right now are those related to understanding what happens in the mental faculties of an individual who has lost the ability to express themselves verbally.

How must the laws of a country, in particular Italy, keep up with the advances in science and new discoveries?

MM: Science and the rules of society are not easily-reconcilable worlds. My job as a scientist is to increase knowledge and make it more accessible to those who cannot do my job. What I hope is to raise the level of openness to what knowledge is being generated by scientific research. Moreover, that the community then decides, through modern democratic means, how this knowledge should be translated into social choice. Unfortunately, however, what is more and more often evident is a form of “inflexibility”, in a social point of view, that leads people to talk without really knowing or understanding, effectively eliminating the possibility to grow through dialogue; transforming any opportunity of growth into a battle to assert the superiority of one point of view over another.


Ludovica Rossi Purini is a Columnist for the Italian Journal